Understanding the Biomechanics of Classical Riding
Written by Nick Onoda
Tuesday, 02 January 2018 03:56


by Nick Onoda

In America and in many other countries, riders use the term “classical” loosely in the same way they might talk about classical music or classic literature. In Germany, the meaning is much more precise. The German school of classical riding was refined over centuries and is the most science based method for creating a healthy, obedient and long lasting horse. This system is based entirely on the natural biomechanics of the horse and rider. It also pays special attention to the psychology of the horse. While there are many ways to train a horse everyone can benefit from learning some key biomechanical systems that have been researched and proven over time.

My mentor Stefen Wolff, former head rider at Klaus Balkenhol’s training facility, is a true biomechanics expert. He once told me that one of the most important things in training a horse is having a clear mental picture of the animal’s biomechanics working correctly. While not easy, this ability pays enormous dividends. It’s the difference between what a bystander sees when a car is racing by and what an engineer visualizes. The bystander sees only the exterior movement, whereas the engineer visualizes the complex interrelations that create a functional machine.

In classical riding theory this quality of correct biomechanics is called “throughness”.

With this picture of throughness in mind, riders must bring into play an understanding of how the biomechanics our own bodies influence our horses. The harmonious dialogue between horse and rider is based on this knowledge.

Readers should know that throughness is the result of having the six elements of the training scale worked out to the degree that fits your horse’s level of training. Your horse must have a correct rhythm, a good degree of suppleness, accept contact, have impulsion, be straight and have an appropriate level of collection. We will not discuss the training scale more in this article, but please note that the biomechanics we examine are only possible because of it.

On to Biomechanics!

Throughness is all about building a bridge of supple muscle that suspends from the tail to the horse’s head. When the bridge is up and you can direct energy over it, from back to front, front to back and side to side, you have attained a good level of throughness.

Since we are examining the biomechanics of throughness we will begin where this cycle of energy originates, at the driving aid.

Photo 1. Nick Onoda riding Gai Jin, owned by Robin Martinez

Photo 2. Nick Onoda riding Gai Jin, owned by Robin Martinez” style=

The Driving Aid- Building the Back Half of the Muscle Bridge

In photo 1 Gai Jin is cantering on the half long rein. Often in a training session I will transition from collection to this stretched position, which refreshes Gai Jin’s muscles. Just under my lower leg lie two muscles, the external oblique abdominal muscle and the abdominal skin muscle. They cover his ribs and attach on the inner surface of his thigh and stifle. When I give an impulse with my leg on these muscles, they lift, bend and pull his hind leg forward under his center of gravity. The leg then touches down, landing like a coiled spring, ready to push the energy forward through his supple body all the way to the bit.

In photos 1 and 2 look at how the muscles behind the saddle pad to the tail are all being pulled backward by a forward swinging hind leg. This is how the back half of our bridge is created. In both photos my leg is just breathing on Jin’s side in the rhythm of the canter and his stomach muscles are mirroring my legs rhythmic contraction, creating a self-perpetuating movement. If I wanted a longer or faster stride I would give a stronger impulse to these muscles which would reflect my aid. Having this relationship between leg and stomach is what being “in front of the leg” means.

Many riders try and squeeze their horses forward and they imagine that this causes the hind leg to push or extend. According to the horse’s physiology the muscles available to your leg can’t cause extension of the hind leg. They can only coil the hind leg which the horse then uses to push itself forward.

Just to keep things complicated, using your leg on this muscle will automatically cause a contraction. He might kick at your foot, lift his leg or spasm that muscle like he is getting rid of a fly, but he won’t automatically produce forward movement with it. The horse has to be trained to use that contraction to move forward. This reaction needs to be trained continually.

The Back and Neck- The Front Half of the Bridge

Two things have to happen to build or tense the front half of the bridge. The back has to swing upwards with every stride and the horse has to stretch forward with this head and neck into the rider’s hand.

You might have heard that you need to “get your horse’s back up” or that the horse should be “over the back”. These can be confusing terms and do not give most riders enough information to understand how the back should work. Here’s what these terms are trying to describe.

The horse’s back needs to be relaxed in order to passively lift and round as the stomach muscles actively contract to coil the hind leg under the horse. The lifting of the horse’s back happens every stride and creates a swinging bridge of taut but relaxed muscle for the rider to sit on. Getting a horse’s back up means getting his stomach to lift his back every stride. It takes a while for the horse to build strength in its back but eventually it swings at a higher level and spends less time down.


Photo 3.” style=

The head and neck naturally stretch forward when the wave of energy passing over the swinging back reaches them. This forward stretch has a profound effect on the spine of the horse. In photo number 3 we can see that the withers and part of the back are constructed of backward leaning spinal processes (bony structures on top of the vertebra). A structure called the nuchal ligament attaches from the back of the head to the tops of all of these spinal processes. When the neck stretches forward as is seen in these photos, the nuchal ligament pulls these processes from backward leaning to a more vertical position. This action literally pulls the back up.

Photo 4. Laura Wildschut riding Panda owned by Karen Flemming” style=

Photo 5. Laura Wildschut riding Panda owned by Karen Flemming” style=

In pictures 4 and 5 Laura alternates between working trot and allowing Panda to stretch forward downward. This exercise, often overlooked, is important because it is excellent for strengthening a horse’s back and helping it to swing. It is also used to evaluate the biomechanical function of your horse. If you give your reins in the working trot, and the horse does not gradually stretch forward and then downwards in a light contact without falling on the forehand or losing its activity, there is something wrong in the biomechanics. Please note, a common mistake is having the neck to low or to curled, which only causes a horse to fall on the forehand and lose engagement.

Examine photos 1 and 5. In these photos everything from where we sit to the tail is being stretched backwards, as the pelvis tilts and the hind leg swings under. Everything from where we are sitting to the horse’s poll is stretched forward, these opposing forces lift the swinging back and forward energy is transferred into equal rein contact.

Being able to put your horse in this horizontal balance is a prerequisite for correct collection. When riding your horse forward in this position you will feel a soft positive pull in your hand, like your wrist is gently being stretched out by your horse’s pushing power. Congratulations you now have energy cleanly passing through your horse from back to front. You now have a contact in your hand with which you can collect your horse.

In photos 2 and 4 you can see that we have transitioned from the stretched horizontal balance to a more uphill collected one. We did this by creating the same situation of energy transfer from back to front, on a shorter rein. We then used this positive contact in our hands to carefully transfer energy back over the bridge towards our horse’s hind end, asking him to carry more weight. This process of getting a soft positive contact and then transferring it to carrying power happens continuously throughout a ride.

It is difficult to train a horse with problems and create this picture of throughness. But we as riders must have a clear goal in mind and understand how our horse’s bodies work in order to influence them correctly. Thankfully many problem solving methods are outlined by in books published by the German Federation. I recommend “The Principles of Riding” “The Rider Forms the Horse” and “Advanced Techniques of Dressage”.


Nick Onoda is an FEI dressage trainer located in Northern San Diego. He was head rider to Stefan Wolff for six years. Two of which were in Germany, where Nick taught clinics and competed. His passion is teaching riders of all levels to understand their horses and communicate through correct biomechanics. Please visit OnodaDressage.com for more information. Nick will be teaching clinics in Oregon in 2016.